John Boston and Damien Broderick: Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy, 1950-67 (p. 247 of 365) (Amazon UK)
The Impossible Smile (Part 1 of 2) • novella serial by Brian W. Aldiss [as by Jael Cracken] ♥
The Middle Earth • short story by Keith Roberts ♥♥
Housel • short story by Alan Burns
Vashti • novelette by Thomas Burnett Swann ♥♥♥+
Timmy and the Angel • short story by Philip Wordley ♥
Cover • by Keith Roberts
Editorial • by Kyril Bonfiglioli
Editor, Kyril Bonfiglioli; Associate Editor, J. Parkhill-Rathbone
This issue has, perhaps, the most striking Cover that the magazine used in this period. I’m not sure I like it but it certainly grabs your attention, and I can’t see any newsstand buyer not picking it up.1
The fiction starts with The Impossible Smile by Brian W. Aldiss, which is the first part of a pseudonymous novella that starts in Norwich, ‘Capital of the British Republics,’ in 2020. Jim Bull (‘Our Beloved Leader’) is assassinated by a killer who had been hiding in a wall cavity. Afterwards, he breaks out from the palace-barracks and ends up in a rocket headed for the moon.
After this dynamic opening section the narrative switches to Wyvern, who is the main character for the remainder of the story. Wyvern has returned from a black market which had been raided by the police and smashed up, and where his sister was arrested. He finds a note from her saying they were looking for telepaths like him. Later he watches TV with his cruxstistics pupils (‘the science of three-di mathematical lodgements) and the news announces Jim Bull’s death: when they show footage from the moon he gets a telepathic flash from a young woman called Eileen. He falls in love immediately and determines to go and find her.
The rest of the first part involves his arrest by the authorities, his encounter with another telepath called Parrodyce, and his subsequent release. He then goes to the moon and, while searching for Eileen, finds a murdered shopkeeper and another man dying of stab wounds upstairs.
All of this is about as bad as it sounds (and I haven’t even mentioned the reason that the authorities are looking for telepaths is so they can teach ‘Bert the computer’ telepathy to control the populace). It seems likely that this story was part of the same tranche of poor quality mss that Aldiss provided to Bonfiglioli when the latter was struggling for material when he started editing the magazine. The story certainly has that air of a rejected New Worlds story from the 1950s.2
That said, there is the (very) occasional flash of the writer Aldiss would eventually become. There is this slight nudge against genre prudery in a description of a neighbourhood on the moon:
JJ was not a savoury quarter. It had lodgings and snuff palaces and a blue cinema, and even one of the gadarenes beloved by spacemen on the search for orgies, thriving among the many tiny shops. p. 36
Not something that would have survived John Carnell’s red pen, I suspect.
There is also quite a good description of Wyvern’s experience as he telepathically probes a dying man to discover who his killer was:
Then that bubble of memory also burst, burst into the garish colour of pain. It flowed round, over, through Wyvern, drowning him, bearing him seven seas down in another’s futility. It bore him Everest-deep, changing its hues, fading and cooling. It carried him where no lungs could live, and then it was going, gargling away into a whirlpool down the hole in the universe where all life goes. It broke foaming over Wyvern’s head, pouring away like a mill-race, tearing to take him with it, sucking at his body, whipping about his legs, screaming as it slid over the bare nerve-ends of Dorgen’s ocean-mind-bed.
The last drop drained. The little universe collapsed with one inexorable implosion. Dorgen was dead. p. 39
The Middle Earth by Keith Roberts is another of his ‘Anita the Witch’ stories. In this one Anita meets the ghost of a man who has recently died in a car crash. He is stuck on Earth and is haunting a rural spot near to where his girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend, I suppose) lives.
There was silence between them for a time. The Fynebrook chuckled; they were sitting beside it, where an overhanging willow cast a pleasant shade. Weed swayed in the current; a fish darted upstream; beside the bank a patch of whirligig beetles danced like demented pearls.
[. . .]
“Do you realize there are fourteen voles in this brook between the bend up there and that big alder tree? Seven holes in this bank, curiously enough, and seven in the other. And two small pike . . . oh, and there’s an otter. I didn’t think there were any otters near here but I suppose one dies and learns . . . and there are about two dozen hedgehogs and thirty-eight bats, nine species of dragonfly, two kingfishers . . .” p. 44-45
Anita feels sorry for him so she goes to see the local Controller to see if she can get him moved on.
“So that’s the whole story, Controller,” said Anita simply. “An’ I came along to you to—”
“Gee-six,” said the Controller furiously to the empty air. “I told you area gee-six, you can’t cross to Leicestershire . . . No, I won’t clear you. You know the rules as well as I do, twenty-four hours’ notice for a county boundary . . . What? I don’t care what you think Ducky, over and out . . . He muttered to himself. “Old days, old days, it was always better in the old days. That’s all I hear, whining about the old days . . . let ’em all Timeshift, see if I care. By Golly . . . Cee-kay-nine-four-zero-fifty, you are cleared for Huntingdon, happy landings . . . Come in oh-fife-four . . .”
Anita sighed hopelessly and crossed her legs. She had been talking for nearly half an hour and she had only just got round to telling him what she wanted. The evening air was chaotic with messages, and most of them were passing through this room. Anita’s mess of senses detected a roar of silent conversation. She unravelled a strand and followed it.
“Four pun ten?” snarled Granny Thompson. “Fer that great mangy brute o’ yourn? Om ’ired better familiars than ’e’ll ever be fer thirty bob a week Aggie, an’ well you knows it . . . p. 48-49
I’m not entirely sure that this one coheres as a story, but if you like the Anita series there are number of aspects you may like: the gentle melancholy of the first part (if you ignore his stiff upper lip English character, and the tonally incongruous offer of sex Anita makes at the end of that section), the descriptions of the country and wildlife, and parts of the scene with the local Controller.
Housel by Alan Burns3 is a terribly, terribly English production (emphasis on terrible) that is notable for its depiction of what I suppose were the class, social and sexual mores in early-sixties Britain. The story itself is about a ‘housel’ repairman doing charity work for a young woman living on the state basic allowance. Her housel machine (an emotion amplifier for your house that produces bespoke feelings and visions) is causing her periodic terrors.
The repairman gets to work and tracks it down to a housel machine in the locked attic. In and around working out why it is malfunctioning he takes her out for meals, they party in town, and she eventually ends up staying at his friends.
I drove to the office, saw that everything was locked up for the night, called up my relieving Housel Repairer to advise him that I’d be occupied for a day or two on a case so he could take anything small that came in and drove Linette out to the complex. My friends the Rutters gladly took Linette in, promised to send her round so she could dine with me in the complex restaurant, and then chased me away. I changed quickly, giving myself half an hour with my text-books.
[. . .]
I put my books away and went down to the restaurant.
The Rutters had turned out a chic little mouse for me. We had a drink or two in the bar and then went in for dinner. Linette’s childhood training made her an interesting conversationalist over a meal, especially when the surroundings and food were several cuts above what comes in return for a State Basic food check. p. 64-65
About three-quarters of the way through the story (spoiler) there is a huge data dump that attributes the problems to aliens that have a damaged spaceship. By then I was pretty much past caring.
Vashti by Thomas Burnett Swann is another of his mythological fantasies. This novelette4 concerns Ianiskos—a man in a child’s body, and a healer who serves the Persian King Xerxes. In the opening scene Ianiskos is at a feast with his king and Haman, a Kurdish general. The latter is fomenting discord between the King and his wife: Vashti is barren and Haman asks the king why he has never seen her completely naked. Provoked, the king orders Vashti to come and reveal herself. Vashti refuses, and the rest of the story’s events are set in motion by her divorce and banishment.
Before she leaves, Vashti meets with Ianiskos and we learn of his previous life, which involves amnesia about his early years, and a subsequent period as a slave. Vashti forbids him to follow her to the mountain kingdom of Petra but after she leaves he does so anyway.
The middle part of the story is about his travels to catch up with Vashti, and (spoiler) his eventual stay with a family of malevolent Jinn children. During the evening meal they take out their prized possession, part of a falling star. They think Ianiskos is the god Tishtar, and he cannot convince them otherwise. He tries to leave in the middle of the night but Tir catches and imprisons him.
Vashti later comes to his rescue and takes him to Petra, a huge valley surrounded by almost impassable cliffs. After resting there for a while, Vashti and Ianiskos are carried by vultures to a strange tree in the mountains. Ianiskos is taken by the tree and is reborn as a man. It materialises that he had previously been growing on the tree until he was ripped away by Eagles working for the Jinns. He later managed to escape, but was captured and made a slave.
He is finally revealed as the god Tishtar.
I thought more highly of this story the first time round. On this occasion it struck me that it could have done with another draft: there are places where scenes are unclear (the entry into the valley of Petra) and there are other things, such as the odd lump of exposition, especially in the final pages. Also, Ianiskos’s rescue from the Jinn children is rather too convenient.
On the other hand, there is some lovely writing:
Xerxes had once accused him: “Your heart is like a moth. It is always looking for another fire in which to burn its wings.” And Vashti had answered: “One day, I think, it will become a phoenix, which rises doubly beautiful from its own ashes.” p. 102
Or this from when Ianiskos emerges from the mountains into the sunlight of the valley:
It seemed to Ianiskos that he stood like a phoenix in the heart of a fire which encompassed all brightnesses: the fire of sandalwood from the hearth of a temple; moonfoam shading from silver to amber to orange like the moon as it waxes to fullness; stars, strewn in a Milky Way without extinguishing their separate twinklings; bluewhite phosphorus from the wake of a galley on a night sea; the flashing bronze mirrors of a pharos on a dangerous headland. Many burnings, many brightnesses; one fire, encompassing and purifying. Atar, the Immortal Flame. p. 107
More significantly, the closing scenes of his rebirth from the tree lift the story to another level.
Timmy and the Angel by Philip Wordley is about a seven year old boy who has paranormal powers. He receives a visit from an ‘Angel’ or alien, who shows him how humanity will spread out into the universe and the harm they will cause. Timmy subsequently uses his powers to go to a guarded facility and alter the nuclear power plants of a secret fleet of spaceships.
In the final passages (spoiler) he is revealed as being the offspring of the visiting alien and returns home.
The style and content of this one is all over the place (it goes from a twee opening to quite dark descriptions of the carnage caused by humanity, for instance) and it is hard to believe that this is the writer would produce the superior Goodnight, Sweet Prince a few months later. This is probably the worst of the four stories he produced for the magazine.
Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Editorial starts off with a plug for British Science Fiction Association and its magazine Vector, before moving on to the World SF convention (which was going to be held in London in 1965). He offers to publish details of other fanzines in forthcoming issues.
He then moves on to this:
I am continually tempted to embark, in these editorials, on one of those long dreary discussions about what Science Fiction really is, whether there is such a genre etc. I have succeeded in the past in fighting against this temptation and hope to continue to do so but there really is a strange idiosyncracy about this particular kind of fiction which continually invites speculation. The only parallel which has any validity is with the detective novel which also had its fixed conventions and rules, its fanatical enthusiasts, its pseudonymous part-time writers and its lovers of the pure and early vintages. But there the resemblance ceases: no ’tec story reader would have thought of running an amateur magazine for other enthusiasts, no editor would have bothered to discuss the nature of the medium in his magazine, certainly no World Congress of detective story writers and readers would have been held every year for twenty three years. What is the peculiar charm, where lies the importance, real or imagined, of this kind of story?
Letters, please? p.3
The last part of his editorial concerns letters and story ratings:
Many of the people who have asked for a letter page (absent this month only because of lack of interesting material) also often ask for story-ratings. I am afraid that I positively decline to use story space on this particular feature, because I do not believe it either useful or accurate. To discourage or encourage writers on the basis of a poll taken from those readers who can be bothered to write and tell me their opinions is manifestly unfair to say the least. If two hundred readers each month commented on each story this would still not be a fair sample: it would be some 80 per cent of the letter-writers but only 1.4 per cent or thereabouts of the whole readership and would tell us nothing about those readers who never write. The only way to get a fair rating for stories would be to pay a market-research firm to take proper random samples from the readership and this would be absurdly expensive. In short, sorry—no story-ratings. p.3-4
I think he makes a good point about story ratings. Simple arithmetic also informs us that (a) the magazine must have had a circulation of around 14,300 copies, and (b) Bonfiglioli was receiving 250 letters of comment every month (an average of ten every time the postie came!)
With the exception of Thomas Burnett Swann’s novelette, quite a dreary issue.
- This cover was quite striking even when it was reproduced as a black and white postage stamp in Mike Ashley’s article on Keith Roberts that appeared in Science Fiction Monthly, December 1975. It was certainly one of the things about the feature that got my attention:
- Despite this story quite obviously being one that should have been forgotten, Aldiss collected it and another piece called Equator (New Worlds #75, September 1958) in the 1987 book Cracken at Critical. The book adds a framing novella, The Mannerheim Symphony. I tried to find out what the critical reaction was but most of the original reviews were in out of the way places (or they are now). More at ISFDB.
- I didn’t recognise the name Alan Burns but he appears to have published a handful of stories between 1955-1965. ISFDB appears to have mixed him up with another writer according to SFE.
- Swann’s story is described as a novella by ISFDB. OCR says it is around 15,200 words.